Are first names just for friends? It used to be that someone would ask you if they could call you by your first name. Now everyone seems to automatically assume they can be on first name terms. But sometimes this” mateiness” isn’t appropriate. Young care staff calling elderly ladies by their first name seems over familiar. The point about asking permission is that the use of the first name implies intimacy. Yet at work these days it is considered rather old fashioned to refer to your boss by their surname. The public sector is no different if you email someone or phone them it’s ok to use their first name even if you have never met and this is the first contact.
In fact Social Services have been informal with senior managers for years. Nobody says “Director can I ask what does this mean?” .They say “Richard what’s going on?” Of course confusion can arise when old school meets new school. On walk about I introduce myself as Blair and the member of staff refers to me as Mr Blair.
In Social Services informality has been encouraged in contrast to the NHS. I have always found it strange that a Doctor is a Doctor until they become a consultant then they become a Mr. Even the NHS is loosening up and first names are used in meetings. But what if it’s a formal meeting like a disciplinary hearing? In such cases we use full name and job title so I would introduce myself as Blair McPherson Director however to put witnesses at their ease they are referred to throughout by their first name as is the employee with their permission. Their union rep will however refer throughout to me as Mr McPherson or “chair”.
Surprisingly informality does not extend to job interviews. Formality in this case is used to emphasise our equal opportunities approach, just to be clear we are not offering posts to our friends or people we like but candidates who best meet the person specification. This can feel a little strange with internal candidates.
Being friendly and encouraging people to call you by your first name seems to fit with a relaxed workplace where cooperation and support are the aim but what happens when conflict and challenge are in the air? What happens when you’re telling staff about redundancies or telling concerned relatives that despite their protests the centres are closing? When people are cross with you they tend to refer to you by your surname.
Blair McPherson author of People management in a harsh financial climate published by Russell House www.blairmcpherson.co.uk